Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

08 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 4

We have come to the fourth and final qualifying group of our British Library world map world cup, and in it we have four extraordinary and breathtaking examples of cartography from between the 11th and 20th centuries. I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to make your difficult choice.

Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals tomorrow, Friday July 10th. 

1.Beatus of Liébana world map. Drawn in Burgos, Spain, between 1091 and 1109 (Add.MS 11695)

Blog add ms 11695

The 15 surviving 'Beatus' maps are included in textual commentaries on the Apocalypse of St John (from the New Testament Book of Revelation) written by the Spanish theologian Beatus of Liébana (fl.776–86). The British Library’s example, arguably more powerful and brooding than the others, is a diagrammatic image with powerful pictorial elements. These include fishes swimming in the sea encircling the world, the‘molehill’ mountains and the unforgettable image of the Garden of Eden at the top of the map, in the east. It was produced in northern Spain (in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos) in around 1109, and as a result reflects Islamic pictorial influences that had spread from northern Africa.

Link to digitised example:

Further reading: Peter Barber, 'Medieval world maps; in Paul Harvey, The Hereford World Map: medieval world maps and their contexts (London: British LIbrary, 2006).

David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: CHicago University Press, 1987).


2. The Contarini-Rosselli world map. Engraving, published in Florence in 1506 (Maps

Blog maps

This is the earliest surviving printed map to show any part of the Americas. It was published in Florence in 1506, only a decade or so after Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492. The map, which is by the Venetian Giovanni Matteo Contarini and Florentine Francesco Rosselli, has been celebrated for its American content ever since this only known copy was purchased by the British Museum in 1922. But it is an extremely early and partial glimpse of eastern America: Newfoundland and Labrador are shown cemented on to Kamchatka, Cuba and Hispaniola are floating next to Japan, and South America is joined to the vast Southern Continent.

Link to digital copy:

Further reading: Patrick Gautier Dalché, 'The Reception of Ptolemy’s Geography (End of the Fourteenth to Beginning of the Sixteenth Century)' in The history of cartography volume three: cartography in the European Renaissance part one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010).

3. Aḍhāīdvīpa. Painted in Rajasthan in 1830 (Add.Or. 1814).

Add.Or 1814 blog with title

This is a map showing the structure of the world of Jainism, a religious system founded in northern India in the sixth or seventh century BCE. The map, which is in Sanskrit, was painted onto cloth in Rajasthan in 1830, and like many of the European medieval mappamundi, it illustrates a fusion of human and sacred geography. At the centre is the recognisable, terrestrial world of people (Mount Meru is at the centre, as it is in the Korean Ch’ ōnhado  maps). Surrounding it is the spiritual world: green concentric-ringed continents illustrated by lunar symbols and separated by fish-filled oceans, beyond which is the outer land of the jinas or prophets.

Link to digital copy:

Further reading: Joseph E. Schwartzburg, 'Cosmological mapping' in The history of cartography volume two, book one: cartography in the traditional Islamic and South Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).


4. Self determination world map, by F. Klimesch. Published in Berlin in around 1919 (Maps CC.5.b.29).

Blog maps CC.5.b.29

The only 20th century world map to make it into our World Map World Cup competition (not that there aren't many great 20th century world maps, just a mere 16 places to fill), is a German map produced in the wake of the peace treaties following the defeat of Germany and the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. It shows the victorious allies Britain, France, Russia and the USA as soldier figures, holding leashes attached to their respective national beasts. These beasts have been placed over the colonies they controlled. 

The title explains why: 'What would be left of the entente if it made serious the right of self-determination of their own people and let go of the reins!' The map calls out the Allies' decision to confiscate German colonies under the principle of 'self determination,' but to retain theirs regardless. Given the century-long process of decolonisation that ensued, and ensues, the map is profoundly and powerfully prescient. 

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: Judith Tyner, 'Persuasive cartography' in The history of cartography volume six: cartography in the twentieth century (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 1087-1094. 


07 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 3

Welcome to Group three of the British Library's world map world cup competition, where you get to select our favourite historic world map for us. 

This group contains some astonishing artefacts from the last one thousand years, and I'm happy to provide further information on them  to help you make up your mind.

When you have done so, vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The two maps with the most votes will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.

1. The Anglo-Saxon World Map. Drawn in Canterbury between 1025 and 1050 (Cotton MS Tiberius B.V.).

Blog cotton ms tiberius bv

For a world map containing such a quantity of information, the Anglo-Saxon world map is extraordinarily early. Much of this information relates to the Roman world: key walled towns such as Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, the Pillars of Hercules at the bottom edge marking the limit of the world as known to Europeans, and lines marking the division of Roman provinces. Its genesis is possibly the first century map ordered by Julius Caesar. At any rate, the people who made the map would have felt themselves still to be living in the great Roman era.

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: Peter Barber, 'Medieval world maps; in Paul Harvey, The Hereford World Map: medieval world maps and their contexts (London: British LIbrary, 2006).

David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: CHicago University Press, 1987).


2. The Martellus world map. Drawn by Henricus Martellus Germanus in Florence, around 1490 (Add. MS 15760).  

Blog add ms 15760

Henricus Martellus, or to give him his proper name Heinrich Hammer's world map is very similar to the 2nd century geographical picture presented by Claudius Ptolemy (see group one). But there are some updates. For example, Scandinavia appears, as do features taken from an account of the journey of Marco Polo. But the most momentous update is the one that shows the Indian Ocean not as an inland sea, but open, with the southern tip of South Africa navigable. Martellus knew this, because Bartholomeu Dias had sailed around it in 1488. The effect was to contest the hallowed ancient perception of the world, literally cutting part of the map's border away in the process.  

Link to digital copy:

Further reading: Nathalie Bouloux, ‘L’ Insularium illustratum d’Henricus Martellus’ in The Historical Review 9 (2012).


3. Chinese globe, by Manuel Dias and Niccolo Longobardo. Made in Beijing in 1623 (Maps G.35.)

Blog maps g.35

This earliest surviving Chinese globe was constructed in Beijing by Italian Jesuits, most probably for a scholarly audience, in order to demonstrate geodetic principles such as longitude, latitude, meridians and parallels. Much of the globe, including large passages of text, derives from the giant world map by Matteo Ricci of 1602. But if you want to show things relating to the spherical nature of the earth, you really need a sphere in order to do it properly, hence the globe.

Geodesy had been known in China well before Europe, and we know that globes were also constructed before his one (though they have not survived), but such things were not part of Chinese culture at this time. The 'gift' of scientific enlightenment was used as a Trojan horse by the Jesuits to impose their religion upon China.

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: Wallis, Helen and E.D. Grinstead, ‘A Chinese Terrestrial Globe A.D.1623’ in British Museum Quarterly, XXV (1962).


4. World map by Antonio Sanches, drawn in Lisbon in 1623 (Add. MS 22874)

Blog add ms 22874

This is an extraordinarily beautiful, large world map, emphasising coasts and navigational features. Delicate and elegant, blues and golds, painted and coloured with consummate skill. This indicates that it was not intended to go on board a ship. It presents the Portuguese view of the word, celebrating Portuguese influence well beyond Iberia with the Quinas (Portuguese arms) stamped upon areas as far afield as South America and China. The map also contains a significant (to say the least) quantity of religious imagery, the spread of Catholicism being a pillar of this world view, and violently enforced. Ironically, given the confidence this map oozes, by 1623 Portuguese dominance in world affairs was being increasingly contested by that European upstart, the Dutch.

Link to digital copy:

Further reading: Maria Fernanda Alegria, Suzanne Daveau, João Carlos Garcia, Francesc Relaño,,  Portuguese Cartography in the Renaissance in The history of cartography volume three: cartography in the European Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010).

06 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 2

Hello and welcome to Group two of our British Library world map world cup. 

In every world cup there tends to be a group of death. This group is the football equivalent of Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain all together. So I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to choose between them.

Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.

1. Vesconte-Sanudo Mappamundi.

Drawn in Venice or Genoa in around 1325 (Add. MS 27376*).

Blog add ms 27376

This map is an extraordinary hybrid between a traditional 'mappamundi' and a portolan or sea chart. It was drawn by the Genoses chartmaker Pietro Vesconte to illustrate Marino Sanudo's mysteriously-titled book 'Secret book of the Faith of the Cross.' The book was presented to Pope John XX in order to persuade him to give his blessing to a Christian Crusade to invade the Holy Land. Other maps in the book illustrated the route to the Holy Land and the goal of the proposed mission: Acre and Jerusalem.

The world map is particularly clever because, most unusually, it consciously played down Christian iconography in order to present the Pope with an image of Christianity in crisis.

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987). 

2. World map by Pierre Desceliers, 1550.

Drawn in Dieppe, 1550 (Add.MS 24065).

Blog Add Ms 24065

Descelier's map is perhaps the crowning achievement of the Dieppe School of French chartmakers; a large planisphere focused upon navigational information (it has dual orientation indicating that it was to be viewed upon a table) but also corresponding to the idea of a visual encyclopedia of everything occurring in the world. The map contains the arms of Henri II of France and the Duc de Montmorency and could have been owned by either. Of particular interest is its depiction of areas of North America then only recently encountered by Jacques Cartier and the unusual arrangement of South East Asia and Australasia entitled Java La Grande that would flummox Europeans up to and beyond the journeys of James Cook two centuries later,

Link to digitised copy:,_1550_-_BL_Add_MS_24065.jpg

Further reading: Sarah Toulouse, 'Marine cartography and navigation in Renaissance France' in The history of cartography volume three, part two: cartogrpahy in the European Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007).


3. Joan Blaeu world map, 1648.

Engraving on 21 sheets, printed in Amsterdam, 1648 (Maps KAR.(1-2.).). 

Blog Maps KAR 1-2

Blaeu's gargantuan map is regarded as the high water mark of Dutch cartography, and that's saying something given the quality of 17th century Netherlands cartography. There are two main reasons for this high regard. Firstly, the technical skill and artistry involved in creating such a high-quality printed map over 3 metres wide. The second is the range and quantity of first-hand geographical information it shows. Blaeu was chief cartographer of the Verenig Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), charged with compiling charts from the latest information gathered from company ships. Instead of secreting this commercially sensitive information like the Portuguese and Spanish did, Blaeu stuck it on a publicly available map. For the Dutch, nothing was more important than business.

The map was used as the model for the giant floor mural of Amsterdam Town Hall. There are a small number of copies still in existence, this one was owned by Charles II. 

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: Cornelis Koeman, Günter Schilder, Marco van Egmond, and Peter van der Krogt, Commercial Cartography and Map Production in the Low Countries, 1500–ca. 1672 in The history of cartography volume three: cartograpy in the European Renaissance (part two).


4. Ch’ ōnhado (Map of All Under Heaven), c. 1800.

Woodcut, printed in Seoul (Maps C.27.f.14.)

Blog Maps C.27.f.14

This incredible map, which is part of a set of maps showing the world and regions of Korea, is one of select group of Korean world maps produced during the late 18th and 19th centuries. They show the world oriented to the east and centred upon East Asia. Look carefully and you can make out the eastern coast of China, Beiing a large red symbol, with the yellow river and Great Wall nearby. The rest of the world are scattered islands on the periphery. These maps were far more basic than earlier Korean-produced maps, and it has been suggested that one of their intended audiences was tourists.

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: Gari Ledyard, 'Cartography in Korea' in The history of cartography volume two book two: cartography in the traditional east and East Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).

05 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 1

Welcome to the British Library’s world map world cup, and this the first of four qualifying groups. Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps) . The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.

Here's more information on the maps if you need help deciding!

1. The Psalter world map, c. 1265. Add.MS 28681 

The Psalter map was probably drawn in Westminster in around 1265 and is almost certainly a miniature (15 cm high) copy of Henry III of England's large mappamundi that adorned his palace in Westminster. Although it is included in a prayer book (psalter) it is now believed that it  was added to the book later. There is a second map on the verso of the leaf, which shows the world in T-O form, with Christ trampling underfoot the dragons shown at the bottom of this map.  

Link to digitised version

Further reading: David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: CHicago University Press, 1987). 

Add.MS 28681
Psalter world map

2. Ptolemaic world map, drawn in Greece, c. 1300. Add.MS 19391

The first printed maps made according to 2nd century Claudius Ptolemy's geographical tables were produced in Italy in 1477. But the earliest surviving 'Ptolemaic' maps were hand-drawn in Constantinople and Greece, where Ptolemy's information arrived via the Islamic world at the end of the 13th century. The earliest known copy is in the Vatican Library (Urbinas Graecus 82). The British Library has 3 manuscript copies of Ptolemy's Geographia illustrated with maps. This is a portion of the codex drawn in the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos in Greece. 

Link to digitised version:

Further reading: O.A.W. Dilke, 'The culmination of Greek cartography in Ptolemy' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987).

Add.MS 19391
Ptolemaic world map

3.  Bankoku sōzu, by Hyashi Jizaemon. Woodcut, printed in Nagasaki, 1645. Maps *920.(485).

The Bankoku sōzu maps are an elite group of Japanese world maps from the 17th century . These maps show a variety of influences including Chinese and European (which is significant given Japan's insular policy at this time). The maps were designed to be displayed on walls with east at the top, next to an accompanying print of 40 ethnographic portraits known as a Jimbutsuzi.

Further reading: Elke Papelitzky, 'A Description and Analysis of the Japanese World Map Bankoku sōzu in Its Version of 1671 and Some Thoughts on the Sources of the Original Bankoku sōzu' in Journal of Asian History (48:1, 2014)

Maps *920.(485).
Bankoku Sozu world map, 1645

4. World map by Thomas Jefferys. Engraving, published in London, c.1750. Maps Screen 2.

Thomas Jefferys large multi-sheet copper-engraved double hemisphere map is one of a number of such maps produced by English mapmakers during the 18th century. Everything about its content is focused upon trade, and features of the world such as magnetic variation and trade winds that made trade possible (though there is no mention of the more deplorable aspects of British 18th century imperialism). The map is the centrepiece of a large pine screen, a piece of furniture that would have populated the home of a merchant. 20 other maps are pasted onto the screen, which would likely have served an educational, as well as a cultural purpose. 

Link to digitised version:

Further reading: Geoff Armitage with Ashley Baynton-Williams, The world at their fingertips : eighteenth-century British two-sheet double-hemisphere world maps (London: British Library, 2012). 

Maps screen 2
Wooden map screen with 21 printed maps, c. 1750

Tom Harper

04 July 2020

Help us choose the British Library's favourite world map

World maps are amazing things for their ability to conceptualise the earth and capture it in miniature. Of course, this comes at a price. World maps, perhaps more than any other 'image,' are powerful and subjective. Each one contains a particular world view, and throughout history they, or rather their makers, have tended use them to impose their views upon others. Who is at the world's centre? Who is relegated to the margins? Who is shrunken in size, and who is removed from the map all together? 

So it's a strange quirk of history that  during the 20th century, that most antagonistic of eras, the world map came to be seen as a symbol of co-operation, togetherness, shared heritage and environmental awareness (thanks in no small part to NASA's famous 1968 Earthrise photograph of our vulnerable planet hanging in the void). As a result, a world map is now capable of saying “we’re all in it together”. It’s World Population Day on Saturday 11 July, so let's attempt to reclaim some of that spirit.

I'd like to invite you to help us choose the British Library’s favourite world map.  Over the next week I’m going to introduce sixteen of the most extraordinary and groundbreaking world maps from between the 11th and 20th centuries, carefully selected from the British Library’s collection of over 4 million maps

The maps will be arranged into 4 groups, with one Twitter poll per day (Monday to Thursday) deciding which two maps from each group will go through to the quarter finals on Friday. The semi finals and final poll will happen on Saturday,  and we’ll think up something special for the winner. Follow us @BLMaps, hashtag #BLWorldMapWorldCup.

What selection criteria might you use? Well, did the map capture some signal shift in civilisation? Is it unique, beautiful, technically accomplished or cleverly made? Or do you just like it because you like it? That’s valid too.

Hopefully through this just-for-fun competition it will be possible to appreciate the history of a world of multiple viewpoints; and, though it won't be easy, to begin to rediscover ones which have been erased. 

Tom Harper

02 July 2020

An Atlas of the Himalayas by a 19th Century Tibetan Lama: A Journey of Discovery

A guest post by Dr Diana Lange of the Institute for Asian- and African Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

In the late 1960s the former British Indian diplomat and Tibetologist Hugh Richardson noticed a collection of maps and drawings in the India Office Library. These were catalogued as the ‘Wise Albums’(Add. Or. 3013–43), but the circumstances of the origin of this collection were unrecorded. A typewritten note stated that the drawings appeared to be by a Tibetan artist, probably a lama, who had contact with Europeans, and that they appeared to have been commissioned by the writer of the accompanying explanatory texts. The maps and drawings were dated between 1844 and 1862, while the bindings were dated late 19th century and inscribed with the name ‘Wise’. This was the start of the long search for “Wise,” who was finally identified in the late 1990s as Thomas Alexander Wise (1802–1889), a Scottish polymath and collector who served in the Indian Medical Service in Bengal in the first half of the nineteenth century. It can be said with confidence that while the collection was named after Wise, he was not the one who commissioned the maps and drawings.

Add.Or 3016 f.2
This map shows the town of Shigatse in Central Tibet with Tashilhunpo Monastery in the centre. Numerous other monasteries are depicted, as well as settlements and rivers. Travel routes are indicated in grey colour. (BL Add. Or. 3016, f.2)

Several scholars who undertook research on the Wise Collection in the past all attempted, without success, to trace the origin of the collection. Most recently, the historian and Tibetologist Michael Aris dealt with the Wise Collection before his death in 1999, again without being able to trace its origins.

Michael Aris noted that the Wise Collection “may represent the most ambitious pictorial survey of Tibetan topography and culture ever attempted by a local artist.” This ambition is reflected in six large picture maps. Placed side by side, five of these picture maps add up to a 15-metre-long panorama showing the west-east route between Leh in Ladakh and Lhasa, and the north-south route leading from Lhasa southwards to Bhutan and today’s Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. The maps are accompanied by 28 related drawings showing detailed illustrations of selected monasteries, monastic rituals, wedding ceremonies, ethnic groups and other topics. Altogether there are more than 900 numbered annotations on the drawings. Explanatory notes referring to these numbers were written in English on 24 separate sheets of paper, with a total of around 7,500 words.

I first encountered the original maps and drawings in the summer of 2009 during a visit to the British Library. I remember that I was so overwhelmed by the quality and quantity of the material, by the beauty and vivid colour of the illustrations and by the map maker’s attention to details – that I decided, still in the Prints and Drawings Room – to work on the collection and to follow Michael Aris’ giant footsteps.

Add.Or 3018 f.4
This map with Tibetan captions shows the northern part of the Zangskar Valley in today’s India in the Western Himalayas. The town of Padum with the old castle is shown on the left, the famous Sani Monastery is depicted on the map’s right side, surrounded by a wall. Different bridges are shown as well as small settlements. (BL Add. Or. 3018, f.4)

Being trained in Tibetology I focused in the beginning on the stories in the maps and drawings – hundreds of little details – and on a new research field: history of cartography. Toby Lester, in presenting his research on the ‘Waldseemüller map’ – the map that gave America its name – stated: “The map draws you in, reveals itself in stages, and doesn’t let go.” (Lester 2009: xxi).This certainly proved true for me and the maps of the Wise Collection. Some of them reveal themselves more easily than others. In drawing the maps, the lama produced a visual account of his travel route, which was more than 1,800km in length. Furthermore, he addressed a range of topics in the accompanying drawings that represent an overwhelming wealth of information on Tibet and the Western Himalayas.

In studying the material, I developed both a feeling for the lama’s drawing style and an understanding of his way of thinking. The so-called ‘scale’ used in the maps is not uniform, nor is their orientation. As a result, many people who look at the maps comment that they are ‘wrong’. While the maps might not always seem ‘accurate’ from a Western scientific point of view, they can give much information about their maker. Shrunk to the dimension of the maps and ignoring scale and cardinal orientation, one could virtually walk through the landscape along the travel route shown on the maps. The mapmaker travelled along this route, familiarizing himself with topographical and infrastructural characteristics, which in turn he depicted on the maps. From our present point of view – being able to benefit from geographical knowledge in the age of Google Earth – it is easy to recognize that specific waterways or mountain ranges run parallel to each other. The lama who made the maps in the Wise Collection did not have access to this information. But that does not mean that his representation of Tibet and the Himalayas is less ‘accurate’. He produced the largest panoramic map of Tibet of its time, based on the knowledge available at that time and based on his personal life experience.

The longer I studied the material and the deeper I understood the collection as a whole, the more new questions emerged. I grew increasingly interested in the story of the collection, and I wanted to understand more than just the maps. I sought to find out about the milieu in which they were drawn, and how and why they came into being. In March 2016, after years of research, I finally found the name of the man who commissioned them. It was William Edmund Hay (1805-1879), former Assistant Commissioner of Kullu in the Western Himalayas. Around 150 years after the maps were commissioned by Hay and created by the Tibetan lama, I was able to add this fundamental piece of information to what was known about the Wise Collection.

Add.Or 3017.f.1
This map with Tibetan and English captions shows the Kyichu Valley east of Lhasa in Central Tibet. Several monasteries are shown in great detail. Travel routes are indicated in white colour, the little boats in the lower left corner represent a ferry station. (BL Add. Or. 3017, f.1)

Like many other mapmakers and painters, the man who made the maps in the Wise Collection has remained anonymous. He was a Tibetan lama from Central Tibet and he had in-depth local knowledge about many of the places he depicted. He was clearly experienced in drawing and he was familiar with Tibetan cartography and visual representation of different elements of Tibetan environment and society. As an educated lama, he was trained to memorize texts and, as testified by the Wise Collection, he was gifted with an uncommon visual memory. We do not know with certainty why the lama shared his knowledge of Tibet and his travel routes with Hay, especially at a time when the door to Tibet was closed to foreigners. With his maps and drawings, the lama opened this door, first for Hay and later for many other people. He opened a door into a time long gone, and this has given us the chance to experience what Michal Aris called a “unique view from within” (Aris, 1992: 126).

Very often, books represent just the results of research gathered over the years. However, with my publication An Atlas of the Himalayas by a 19th Century Tibetan Lama: A Journey of Discovery I aim for several goals. As the result of a collaborative project between two people from different cultural backgrounds, the Wise Collection represents a “visible history” of the exploration of Tibet. My intention is thus not only to introduce the collection and the stories in the maps and drawings, but also the story of the collection: the people involved in the creation process, the collection’s journey from India to – and then within – Great Britain, and also the tracing of the collection’s origin. My research on the Wise Collection was comparable to a detective story, and I also want to share this tale with the reader. I very much hope that the book will present my work in a meaningful way to an audience beyond Tibetologists. The book’s subtitle – Journey of Discovery – refers to different journeys that intersect as if it was all one big journey over two centuries, including the lama’s journey, Hay’s journey, the collection’s journey to Great Britain and my own journey of research.

Diana Lange  An atlas of the Himalayas cover
Lange, Diana. 2020. An Atlas of the Himalayas by a 19th Century Tibetan Lama: A Journey of Discovery. Leiden: Brill.

Aris, Michael. 1992. “The Buddhist Monasteries and Rituals of Tibet: A Unique View from Within.” Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies 12, no. 1: 126.

Lester, Toby. 2009. The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America. New York: Free Press.

Schwartzberg, Joseph E. 1994. “Maps of Greater Tibet.” The History of Cartography. Vol. 2, Book 2. Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, eds. J.B. Harley and David Woodward, 607–681. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


30 June 2020

Potosí, the celebrated city

Have you ever heard of Potosí? Or perhaps wondered what is so special about this Bolivian city that it appeared on the early maps of South America alongside the views of well-known places like Havana, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City? Most atlases produced from the mid-16th to 19th century included a map or an image with a description of this place, but why?

The reason that Potosí was put on the maps is rather extraordinary – in 1545 the Spanish conquistadors discovered the world’s richest silver deposits there. Within three decades a small mining settlement at the foot of the Andean Potosí Mountain in the Viceroyalty of Peru (present day Bolivia) was to become one of the world’s wealthiest cities with a population of over 160,000 surpassing that of Rome, Madrid or London at the time.

Blaeu Americae nova Tabula

Americæ nova tabula by Willem Blaeu, features views of famous cities along the top. Amsterdam, 1631. Maps 9.Tab.15,16.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

Potosí was the city with truly global impact. The vast deposits extracted from the Potosí Mountain also known as Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) provided over half of the world’s silver supply. Coins struck in the Potosí Royal Mint were in circulation worldwide reaching Asia and the Far East where they were readily accepted in exchange for oriental commodities such as silk, spices and porcelain. This sudden influx of silver revolutionized the world’s economy and many historians trace the beginning of the global economy back to Potosí’s silver boom. The city was so famous for its extraordinary wealth that its name became synonymous to richness and enormous value, so much so that even the expression valor de Potosí (meaning ‘worth of Potosí’) made its way into everyday language and is still used in modern Spanish. 

As with most other influential wealthy cities it was portrayed on countless maps. Topographical views of Potosí provide a glimpse of the industrial infrastructure in the area with a network of hydraulic ore-grinding mills shown in the background. The views are often accompanied by a short description of the mines which marvel over the seemingly limitless silver deposits and astonishing quantities of produced ore.

Maps C.24.aa.21

The Silver Mine of Potozi London, Phillip Lea, around 1700. Maps C.24.aa.21. 

A chart of South America Mount&Page

A chart of South America from the River Real to Cape Horn showing the Potosí Mountain within otherwise empty interior. Published in Atlas Maritimus Novus or the New Sea Atlas. London, R. Mount and T. Page, 1708. Maps C.27.g.1. Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

In order to extract and process the silver an enormous work force was required. The descriptive texts often quote that over 20,000 workers were ‘employed’ in the mines with no mention of the slavery, exploitation and the enormous human cost this lucrative enterprise involved. The contemporary authors of the time remain silent about the brutal conditions, the forced labour inflicted upon the indigenous population and the huge numbers of slaves brought from Africa and transported overland from Buenos Aires which was one of trading stations of the South Sea Company (a British enterprise trading slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America). Hundreds of thousands of people perished in the Potosí mines during the colonial era due to exhaustion, accidents, gas and mercury poisoning. The celebrated mountain was dubbed the Mountain That Eats Men.

Maps C.46.f.12.

Map of South America by Herman Moll with an inset view of Potosi,. The map also indicates location of ‘The Great Mines of Potosi’. London, after 1714. Maps C.46.f.12. 

By the end of the 18th century the quantity of silver extracted from the mines of Potosí had diminished with most of the good ore exhausted. According to A Gazetteer of the World by the 1850s the city was a shadow of its former self with the population reduced to 14,000. The Potosí Mountain didn’t even make it to the List of the Principal Mountains on the Augustus Petermann's Peru-Bolivian Tablelands map issued with the Gazetteer. Potosí, once an influential city and the backbone of the Spanish Empire’s economy fell into decay and lost its prominent place on maps almost as quickly as it appeared in the 16th century.

10003.w.6 p.16
Peru-Bolivian Tablelands map … by Augustus Petermann published in A Gazetteer of the World, or, Dictionary of geographical knowledge ... Edited by a member of the Royal Geographical Society. Edinburgh & London, A. Fullarton, 1850-57. 10003.w.6.

25 June 2020

Flickr Maps on the Georeferencer Finished!

Way back in 2014,  the British Library released over 50000 images of maps onto the Georeferencer that had been extracted from the millions of Flickr images from books with the help of volunteers. Ever since then the volunteers have been hard at work adding coordinate data and I am delighted to announce that the collection is now very close to or very probably completed. Many thanks to Sarah Shepherd, Singout for getting in touch about this. The upgraded Georeferencer and the time we have all had to spend indoors over the last months appear to have provided the project with a new impetus, well done to all!

The methods used to extract maps from the corpus of Flickr images meant that there were always going to be some images on the platform that were difficult to georeference such as celestial maps, cross-sections through geographical features like glaciers and fictional maps. Therefore, although the progress bar [] still shows over 3000 maps left it may be difficult or impossible to attach coordinates to those that remain.

Progress Bar 06-2020
The Georeferencer progress bar

To learn more about the Flickr maps collection and their addition to the Georeferencer platform back in 2014 take a look at this blog post ( Those of you who have been on the platform recently will probably have found it difficult if not impossible to get hold of a map to georeference.  We are not 100% sure that the maps are completely finished and if volunteers are interested in seeking out those possible last remaining images these links might make finding the images easier. Those tagged as 'togeoref' on Flickr:

or on James Heald's brilliant wikimedia tool which, sadly, is not being updated due to breaking changes caused by the upgraded Georeferencer:

Do get in contact with your experiences at Thanks to Maurice Nicholson for his comments on the present situation and indeed all his help over the years.

The work of Georeferencer volunteers has been invaluable to the Library; the addition of coordinate data from the Flickr collection to the British Library's catalogue has offered a new metadata perspective for our collections. The British Library's Goad fire insurance maps have also recently been made available on the Layers of London platform.

It would not be possible to view the digitised maps on the Layers of London web map interface without the addition of thousands of control points by our georeferencers. We are currently working to add new images to the Georeferencer although bringing this to fruition is not made easier by the current circumstances and the difficulties they cause in accessing data on-site.

In the meantime I would like to highlight an issue with our OS drawings and Civil war maps. When the Georeferencer was upgraded we resupplied thousands of images. Unfortunately, we made an error with several hundred that were added with an erroneous 'colour bar'. Please see this example.


Ordnance Surveyor Drawing of part of Nottingham (Maps OSD 290) with the colour bar

The additional colour bar means that the new image does not match up with the original control points. Please accept my apologies for this error. We have been trying to track down the original files and book time and funds to replace them on the system. In the meantime, if you would like to correct these images please do so, your work would be helpful, but otherwise we will replace the images when we can which will align the original georeferencing. We know that Civil War and OS Drawings collections suffer from this problem but if you find other images or you would like to provide any other feedback please get in contact at

Colton's map of the Pacific States, 1862 (Maps 71495.(60.)) with colour bar

Finally, if you are missing georeferencing and looking for a different challenge, there are other opportunities to volunteer for British Library projects. The first point of call is to sign up for our LibCrowds newsletter [`] It's a great way to find out about BL ongoing crowd-sourcing projects including Playbills [] or Siberian Photographs []. Please do stay involved!

Gethin Rees